Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Do Crime Writers Make Good Jurors?

Over the last few days, the news has been filled with reactions to another high-profile murder case out of Florida--the so-called "Loud Music" Murder Trial.  From the cable news bloviators to the Twitterverse, everyone seems eager to second-guess the jury's deliberations (at least, the ones that resulted in a mistrial).

Such passionate opinions! people shared. But here's the thing--few of these people, if any, would actually want to serve on a jury. Or even be willing to.

Dodging jury duty. It's an American tradition. We'll plead anything to get out of serving this civic duty--we'll claim job hassles, childcare responsibility, a passing gas attack--almost any excuse will do, as long as we can make it believable.


I remember the last time I got called up for jury duty. It was Wednesday, the week before Christmas. A robbery case. As a court official polled the rows of prospective jurors, people were practically diving under their seats to avoid being called. Meanwhile, I'd positioned myself in the front row. I was all but waving my hand like an overeager student: "Oh, oh! Choose me! Choose me!" As a writer. I'd been dying to experience a jury trial. This was my chance. 

I couldn't wait to hear the case, take copious notes, and start deliberating. 

The case itself was a bit anticlimactic.  The "robbery" we were judging turned out to be little more than a glorified shoplifting case. I was amazed at how lousy the defense attorney's arguments were. Partly because of her poor presentation, I drove everyone crazy once we reached the jury room. My fellow jurors seemed to want to take a vote and get out of there, but I insisted on dissecting all the evidence. I think the others were afraid I was going to prolong the deliberations until Christmas. Finally we found the defendant guilty of petty theft, a far lesser crime than robbery. The accused--a young male, he looked about 19 years old--collapsed his head to his knees with relief as we read the verdict.

The writer's part of my brain soaked up every drop of the jury experience. The next time I have to craft a court scene, I'll be able to draw on real memory, not something I learned second-hand. Or, worse! from the movies. The next time I get one of those summons in the mail, I'll be back in the front row, hoping to get called.

Am I the only person who gets excited about jury duty? Have any of your jury experiences been useful in your story-telling?

24 comments:

  1. I got called when I was fresh out of high school, and served as an alternate (which means I didn't get to deliberate, just listened to the trial and then dismissed right before the end). It was a very interesting experience. However, I was called again last year, in the middle of the school year. I'd be happy to serve during the summer, but when I'm teaching AP English to seniors and the AP exams coming up, I promise you don't want a sub in for me (especially if it's going to be a few days). So yeah, I begged off based on work issues, but I like to think it was justified.

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    1. Well, you had a valid excuse, Jake! The same can't be said for many of us! :)

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  2. The only reporter I've ever known to sit on a jury was a guy who worked at a rural, small town weekly. He'd gone to court to cover a case and, when they didn't have enough potential jurors, ended up putting him in the box. I've worked all my life in the news business and reporters almost never get accepted for juries. It's as if the lawyers know we never believe anything they say, although I think reporters tend to be pretty focused on the facts and not get swayed by side issues. But there you go, never served on a jury. The one time I was called I had barely gotten the words "reporter" out of my mouth when I was excused.

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    1. When I was interviewed by the lawyers I said I was a writer, and was afraid that would disqualify me. But it didn't--in LA, every other person is a writer, producer, or actor. If they disqualified all of us, there'd be no one left to serve on juries!

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  3. I always go to my jury calls, three times so far. I've yet to get as far as voir dire. I've love to be on one, though alternate may be the best gig for a crime writer, as you get all the experience and none of the responsibility (assuming the regular jury all make it to the end.)

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    1. I went through several rounds of sitting entire days as part of a potential jury pool, but never even got interviewed. My luck changed when I moved to a beach area, and a different court. A much nicer experience!

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  4. I've always thought it would be cool to serve on a jury - but in Australia I was automatically ruled out as I was a lawyer (just a rule they had - not sure if they still do). Then when I first moved to America I wasn't a US citizen so I couldn't serve. Now I am and I still bet I'd never get on any jury - mystery writer and recovering attorney probably just spells troublemaker....If I was an attorney in the case I wouldn't want me on the jury:)

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    1. Sounds like you're SOL, Clare--but I'd still want you on my jury!

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  5. I've served on a jury once, and I got called in as an expert witness once.

    The jury duty was a three-day trial of a man accused of kidnapping a prostitute and tying her up in his shop while he went off to play bridge with friends. The defense claimed there was no kidnapping, that the woman knew the man, and she'd broken into his shop and stolen some items while he was gone.

    The entire case hung on whether the door glass was broken from the inside out as the woman escaped, or whether it was broken from the outside in when she broke in. The cop who responded to the man's call about the burglary couldn't even diagram the interior of the shop accurately, let alone verify where the bulk of the broken glass was. I came away with serious doubts about both our police and court systems.

    Kathy

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    1. Interesting! What'd they decide? Or no verdict?

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    2. I still wonder about our verdict. We had a nurse on the jury who said that while he was testifying, she could see his pulse throbbing in his neck. She said that meant he lied. I wondered if it might not also mean he was angry for being falsely accused. While the prosecutor gave us minute-by-minute account of the prostitute's life story, the defense skipped over several years of the accused's life. The nurse assured us this was because the accused was serving time during that period. We found him guilty based on assumptions and innuendo.

      Kathy

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  6. My very first jury trial as a lawyer ended up as a mistrial in voir dire. A prospective jury leaned forward, narrowed her eyes, and hissed, "my parents live next door to his and I know exactly what he is capable of."

    I was gobsmacked. Do I make a fuss and flush then entie 80 member jury pool, most of whom did not hear her, or do I just get her ass out of the courtroom ASAP?

    It was the clerk that put me out of my misery. She called a sidebar and, bam, mistrial. The DA ended up dismissing the case (I had evidence that put him 30 miles away at the time, the "victim" was flat out lying.)

    My second jury trial hinged partly on the vomit trajectory.

    Yes, law is so glamorous. My crim experience likely DQs me off of any jury, but I would go in a heartbeat.

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    1. I can only imagine the pictures analyzing the trajectory of spew. Eww!

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    2. No photos. I had to "paint" a word pic trying to get across that the witness had been so drunk the night of the crime that he didn't even remember his hurling correctly.

      If my guy hadn't opened his big mouth, I may have won. However, I did get this take-away. The parabolic mics on police cruisers can penetrate walls.

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  7. I'm with you, Kathryn. I have served many times and enjoyed each. I have no problem getting that summons in the mail. I recently got summoned for federal grand jury but it was in Miami and I no longer live in South Florida. They agreed that the 1260-mile round trip commute was cruel and unusual punishment, and excused me.

    I remember hearing a jury selection story many years ago when the potential jurors were being questioned for a trial in Miami. A young hotshot lawyer was asking the panel their names and occupations. He came to one man who gave his name as Thomas Harris and whose occupation was a writer. The lawyer asked if Mr. Harris had ever been published. When the answer was yes, he then asked if it was a book he might have heard of. Mr. Harris replied SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. The lawyer's face turned red. Mr. Harris was excused.

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  8. That is a moment every writer lives for! Love it!

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  9. Without intending to offend anyone, let's just say that I don't believe in it any more than I believe in Santa Claus.

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  10. I like jury duty. In St. Louis, our packed jury room was asked how many people had a murder victim in their immediate family. These were average mddle class people. More than half raised their hands. The woman next to me said her brother had been killed by a jealous husband. He gave a woman coworker a ride home and her estranged husband shot them both when he pulled up in front of her house. Now there was a novel.

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  11. Jury duties are quite fun at times. If you ever need a Court reporter miami contact me, Good day!

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  12. Thanks for changing my attitude regarding the summons in my inbox. I receive one every year and hold my breath until I hear the words "excused." This time I'm going to sit in that room as a writer doing research not a citizen dreading jury duty.

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    1. Glad to have helped you reframe the concept, JM! It's less torture this way! :)

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  13. I've never been chosen because I was a paralegal. Apparently the didn't want someone like that. But now, I'd love to be chosen.

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